The City of Falls Church’s situation now is like that of the hero in those familiar scenes from action films when he races toward a gate that is closing, with his only hope of surviving being to slip under it before it slams shut. He could either be crushed, or reach freedom.
The hero in the movies, of course, always makes it, by the narrowest of margins. We haven’t seen one who wound up squished by the gate, yet. But for Falls Church, in the real world, there are no guarantees.
In the Falls Church case, the hero is being propelled by economic development. The gate is the “boundary condition” represented by the city’s current over-reliance on residential real estate taxes and, then, beyond the gate is a thriving, energetic and sustainable community with a distinct character, the envy of all.
The Falls Church analogy includes one additional ingredient. That is a rope that has been tied to the hero’s belt by a handful of nay-sayers, those are pulling him back because they think that keeping him within the current boundaries corresponds to their dreamy nostalgia for the way things once were. They could just fall asleep with such thoughts, not knowing that if they had their way, they’d wake up to a cacophony of indifferent and uncontrolled sprawl managed by their new leader, some scary Big Brother county who cares nothing for them or their nostalgia because it’s in command of millions of residents.
What these nay-sayers don’t see is if they keep their hero from getting beyond the gate, they won’t get the pristine village they hope for. The revenue challenge (City officials reject the word, “crisis”) facing the City in the coming budget cycle, derived from the stall and decline of its primary revenue source, should wake such folks up. If the City can’t achieve the level of revenue diversification needed in its tax base quickly, its very existence as an independent jurisdiction is endangered. If it’s compelled to run to one or the other of its surrounding larger jurisdictions for a bail-out, then it would be like the owner of a small business selling out to a big corporation. The owner loses all control over his business and its destiny, and it likely faces asset stripping and complete restructuring.
Urbanization is sweeping over Northern Virginia, replacing in every way the former suburban mode of living. It’s coming and nothing will stop it. For Falls Church, the question is whether it wants the decisions on how this proceeds to be made by itself, or someone else. If it tries to stop urbanization, it will lead only to something akin to bankruptcy and a swift abdication of autonomy. On the other hand, if it embraces the process and shapes it in unique and special ways, then it can come away with a distinct, while urban, landscape that will prosper from the construction chaos about to hit Tysons Corner and elsewhere, and become an oasis for a great wedding of sanity and design.